Lebanon once fought against French colonialism, now resisting Saudi Arabia, Iran

MEHMET FAHRI DANIŞ @fahridanis
Published

On last Nov. 22, all ethnic groups in Lebanon marked the 74th anniversary of the country's independence, celebrating the historical day together by singing their national anthem under their national cedar flags. When looking from the outside, it seems normal that a nation celebrate its freedom – but it is not what it looks like. The Prime Minister Saad Hariri case makes the last anniversary stranger than ever. Let us take a brief look at Lebanon's history and find its correlation with Hariri's resignation story.

On Nov. 22, 1943, the French colonial administration in Beirut put an end to the detention of dozens of Lebanese politicians, including the then president and prime minister of the country, and thus we can say Lebanon gained independence from France. As a milestone in history, the Independence Day, celebrated during the past weeks, was also memorized with similar events in Lebanon's history. Hariri, who declared his resignation while he was in Saudi Arabia – according to some, he was forced to resign and was taken hostage in Riyadh – returned to his country on the very same day, namely, on the Independence Day.

Becoming a modern state in the Middle East

Lebanon, after the San Remo Conference in 1920, was left to the French mandate. France formed Lebanon as a separate unit on this date and separated it from Syria by strict boundaries. The most important feature distinguishing this small Middle Eastern country from the others in the region is its highly fragmented demographic structure. The Lebanese constitution recognizes 18 religions and sects as official. Nevertheless, the 1926 constitution, created under the French rule, foresees the fair participation of all the groups in Lebanon in governance, but it has not been able to apply this principle in practice.

Historically, political life in Lebanon has been shaped around the struggle between Arab nationalists who support the unification with Syria, and Arab Christian Lebanese nationalists who were pro-French/Western. During the French-controlled 1920s and 1930s, Lebanese Muslims were the most ardent advocates of independence. The French-sponsored Maronite government dominated all the bureaucratic and administrative mechanisms in the country and the Lebanese identity was built largely on the basis of Maronite activity. Change was possible in 1943, when Lebanon agreed that Christian and Muslim groups in Lebanon would reach a common consensus and that Lebanon was independent of both Syria and France.

Bishara al-Khuri, one of the prominent figures in the Maronite community, and the first prime minister, a Sunni leader, Riad al-Solh, made a mutual agreement on Oct. 7, 1943, to determine the future of both communities and Lebanon in general. According to this treaty, which is now called the National Pact, the unique structure of Lebanon was confirmed. While Maronites confirmed that it was independent of France, a part of the Arab region and culture, Muslims also agreed that Lebanon would not unite with Syria. It was also decided to open administrative and bureaucratic duties to all religious and sectarian groups in the country, and various authorities were allocated to certain denominations.

While the National Pact is still a vital agreement for Lebanon and there is no written text in it, Lebanese prime ministers are sworn in on the National Pact, along with the Constitution.

Along with the treaty, then President Khuri and Prime Minister Solh took action for Lebanon's independence, imprisoning many Lebanese politicians, including both French colonial administrations. The state of detention of the elected prime minister and president of the country ended on Nov. 22, 1943, as a result of intensive protests by the people from every faith and ideological opinion, and on this day the Lebanese people got their independence.

The next stage was an unstable period for Lebanon. During decades of economic and political crises, assassinations and civil wars, Lebanon was heavily influenced by events in the Middle East. As the Cold War continued, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union reduced the polarization to an ideological platform for the actors in the country. Since 2000, the Saudi Arabia-Iran disintegration in the Middle East has changed the balance of domestic politics for Lebanon, which has nearly the same amount of Sunnis and Shiites. In 2005, then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a bombing, and in the following process, trying to protect the dominance of the Syrian-Hezbollah partnership in Lebanon led to bloody consequences.

The son of Refik Hariri, the future leader of the Future Movement (FM), Saad Hariri, sat in the prime minister's seat in 2016, acknowledging a partial reconciliation with Hezbollah. The conflicts in Syria since 2011 had large and hard impacts on Lebanon. Conflicts have sprung up in certain parts of Lebanon, together with Palestinian refugees, the number of migrants in the country has surpassed two million and the Lebanese economy has been unable not withstand the crises.

As Saudi Arabia changes, so do others

Moreover, the anticipated change of power in Saudi Arabia and Mohammad bin Salman's anti-Iran attitude led to the anticipation of a war of fortune in Lebanon following Syria and Yemen. Hariri, who was in Saudi Arabia in this process, announced his resignation as prime minister, accusing Iran of involvement in Lebanon's interior affairs.

Hariri's resignation was interpreted as a result of Saudi Arabia's direct intervention in Lebanon and desire to create a harsh opposition against Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. One day after Hariri's resignation, on Nov. 4, the media reported that 11 princes and four ministers from the Saudi dynastic family were arrested. Hariri flew to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Nov. 7 and interviewed Mohammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the number one partner of Mohammad bin Salman. The Lebanese prime minister's resignation in Riyadh in a period of political intrigue far from his own country increased the Lebanese reaction to Saudi Arabia. Even Hariri's party raised criticism against Saudi Arabia. Despite his denial, some claimed Hariri was arrested in Riyadh with his family.

On Nov. 18, Hariri met with French President Emmanuel Macron, and three days later, with Egyptian coup leader and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Then following a one-day visit to Greek Cyprus, he returned to his country on Nov. 22, Lebanon's Independence Day. He read the Lebanese national anthem with hundreds of Lebanese in front of the prime minister's residence and then announced that he suspended his resignation. By doing so, Hariri thought he would make his position stronger thanks to support from international actors in Lebanon. In terms of Saudi Arabia and Mohammad bin Salman, the situation in Lebanon has become quite bad. The Saudis, who aim to strengthen the anti-Iranian front with new partners in the region, may have to change their policies in the face of the new realities in Lebanon.

Above all, Independence Day on Nov. 22, 2017, was celebrated in an atmosphere of national reconciliation rarely encountered in Lebanese history. Maronite Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, millions of Lebanese, welcomed Hariri's return (or release) with enthusiasm reminiscent of celebrations that took place 74 years ago. The Lebanese people, who defended the independence of their country against France and Syria in the past, today want to protect their freedom from Saudi Arabia and Iran. How much it is possible in the Middle East, where there is a lot of potential for conflicts in a highly unstable environment, is difficult to predict.

* Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Yıldız Technical University

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